LA County on brink of moving into 'red tier' as COVID hospitalizations drop to lowest point in 4 months

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- COVID-19 hospitalizations in Los Angeles County have slipped below 1,000 for the first time in four months, officials reported Saturday, as restaurants, movie theaters and fitness centers prepare to once again reopen indoors at limited capacity.

Los Angeles County will officially move into the less-restrictive red tier in the state's economic-reopening blueprint on Monday. County officials confirmed the move Friday, when the state met the threshold of administering 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine in low-income communities across California that have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

When it met that threshold, the state eased the requirements for counties to advance through the four tiers of the blueprint, which governs business restrictions based on the spread of COVID-19. The new requirements allow Los Angeles County -- as well as neighboring Orange County -- to move out of the most restrictive "purple'' tier and into the red'' tier.

Under "red'' tier guidelines announced by the Los Angeles County Thursday, indoor dining can resume at 25% of capacity. The county will require restaurants to have 8 feet of distance between all tables, which will be restricted to a maximum of six people from the same household. The rules also call for ventilation to be increased "to the maximum extent possible.''

RELATED: Indoor dining, movie theaters, gyms: Here's what will reopen in LA County on Monday

Restaurant servers are already required to wear a face mask and a face shield. With the new rules, the Department of Public Health "strongly recommends'' that employees upgrade their face coverings, through the use of higher-grade N95 or KN95 masks, or a combination of double-masking and a face shield.

Health officials also strongly recommend -- but do not require -- that all employees be informed about and offered the chance to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Food service workers are already eligible to receive the shots.

Rules for other businesses that will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday largely align with state guidance for the "red'' tier:
-- museums, zoos and aquariums can open indoors at 25% of capacity;
-- gyms and fitness centers can open indoors at 10% capacity, with required masking;

-- movie theaters can open at 25% capacity with reserved seating to provide at least six feet of distance between patrons;
-- retail and personal care businesses can increase indoor capacity to 50%;
-- indoor shopping malls can reopen at 50%, with common areas remaining closed, but food courts can open at 25% capacity and in adherence with the other requirements for indoor restaurants.

Moving to the "red'' tier will also allow the reopening of theme parks as early as April 1 -- including Disneyland in Orange County and Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles County -- at 15% of capacity, with in-state visitors only.

The rules also permit resumption of activities at institutes of higher education, and reopening of in-person instruction for students in grades 7-12. Private indoor gatherings are also permitted for people from up to three different households, with masking and physical distancing. People who are vaccinated can gather in small groups indoors without masking or distancing.

"This is welcome news, especially as many of our small businesses have borne the brunt of the financial fallout from this pandemic, and as our students struggle to keep up with distance learning,'' county Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis said. "We have achieved this milestone and moved down to the 'red' tier because as a county we worked hard, looked out for one another and came together to defeat the dark winter surge.

"Although we are taking steps to re-open some of the hardest hit sectors of our economy, that in no way means we can drop our guard now,'' she said. "We owe it to our neighbors, our local businesses, and our children to remain vigilant so that the re-openings are safe and long-lasting -- wearing masks and physical distancing remain critical.''

Meanwhile, the county's rate of new cases and hospitalizations continued their general decline on Saturday. The county health department reported 793 new cases of COVID-19 and 42 additional deaths, bringing the totals to 1,209,632 cases and 22,446 deaths since the pandemic began. The number of county residents in the hospital with the virus dropped from 979 on Friday to 951, with 281 in intensive care.

"We have made good progress and have more progress to make. We urge everyone to use caution and good judgment in these next critical weeks and months to avoid surges in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths like we saw at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021,'' Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. "Don't let your guard down. Continue following all safety measures. Stay masked, maintain at least a 6-foot distance from others, and keep in mind outdoor activities are far safer than indoor ones.''

The cities of Long Beach and Pasadena, which both have their own health departments separate from the county, also announced they will shift to the "red'' tier and enact new loosened rules -- largely mirroring the county -- at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

Long Beach officials said that city will also align with new guidelines the state announced Thursday allowing wineries and breweries that do not serve food to reopen outdoors for alcohol service. The rule requires all customers to have an advance reservation and be seated at tables, all of which will have a 90-minute time limit per customer.

Los Angeles County has not announced any plans to adopt the new guidelines on non-food-serving breweries and wineries. Counties are permitted to impose tougher restrictions than the state.

AMC Theatres announced that it will reopen its Century City 15 and Burbank 16 theaters on Monday afternoon, with the balance of its movie houses opening March 19.

"As we have done at more than 525 locations around the country, AMC will reopen with the highest devotion to the health and safety of our guests and associates through our AMC Safe & Clean policies and protocols, which were developed in consultation with Clorox and with current and former faculty at the prestigious Harvard University School of Public Health,'' AMC President/CEO Adam Aron said.

In addition to Los Angeles and Orange counties, 11 other counties across the state were also cleared to move into the "red'' tier thanks to the state reaching the vaccination milestone. Barring any reversal in case numbers, 13 more counties will move into the red'' tier when the state does its weekly update on Tuesday, including San Diego and Riverside counties, meaning the entirety of Southern California will be in "red'' by the middle of next week.



City News Service contributed to this report.
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